Can I start by saying that the accusations of ADF personnel conducting themselves in a war zone with rude or crude acts, “misbehaving at a makeshift bar in Afghanistan,” or drinking beer from a prosthetic leg – none of this should ever have been shared with media, and our media ought to have demonstrated discretion and decency in the dissemination of that imagery, out of respect for the contract we have with the soldiers we have sent to perform the most traumatising of all acts – to kill.
What we have done in Australia, is cognitively and decisively glorified our deceased veterans on ANZAC Day, on Remembrance Day, and in media suicide stories (and only ever through the metaphor of maternal grief), whilst damning our living ADF members and veterans, and forgetting their number one function (kill or be killed), is a function sanctioned by both Australia and Afghanistan, demanded of them by you the voters, to protect our national security, and to stabilise international tensions.
The nation has decided that the full narrative surrounding veterans is one we must not look at. When was the last time you heard the term “terrorist?” Or “shariah law?” Or “Taliban?” All of these things still exist, little girls are still executed if found to be educated, little boys are still being trained to kill, and little kids are still playing dress-ups with suicide vests and used as weapons. Yet, we as a nation have decided not to look at these things… we have allowed our Prime Minister and Chief of Defence Force to apologise to our enemies in Afghanistan, whilst hanging our heroes out to dry by a noose.
The problem with trauma is that the human mind protects itself from annihilation, by compartmentalising that trauma in a space in the mind’s deepest recesses. In the absence of a compassionate society (by which I mean the absence of compassionate leadership, and compassionate therapy), this suppressed trauma brews like lava until either it is appropriately treated, or that volcano explodes in the form of aberrant behaviour, of mental illness, or suicide.
I can’t help draw the ironic comparison, between Ben Roberts-Smith VC MG burying this trauma deep inside the mind, and allegedly burying USB drives inside a pink plastic children’s lunchbox, hiding them from both police and military investigations. In fact, this act is not simply an ironic symbolism, this is exactly what is happening inside the minds of our SASR soldiers. The information contained on those USB drives is the exact same trauma that is stored deep inside their minds’ recesses.
That evidence of war trauma, whether it’s suppressed in the mind, in a pink plastic children’s lunchbox, or buried 6ft under – it is trauma that is not only being suppressed and buried, it’s being punished. Suicide attempts among ADF personnel are still – in 2021 – being met with a military charge of “prejudicial conduct,” and ultimately a discharge from the ADF, sending a very strong message to everyone else to hide every crack and every evidence that a member is in the hurt locker.
When trauma is overwhelming, the mind often protects itself by disabling its ability to experience ’empathy.’ And our veteran space is over-burdened with an overwhelming number of both veterans, and their family members, whose fractured sense of empathy has created a fundamentally toxic landscape, culminating in worsened trauma, increased homelessness, mental illness, suicides… and aberrant behaviours.
If Australia wants to make this kind of trauma worse, then by all means – keep prodding and provoking our most traumatised veterans with stigmatising, shaming and punitive national judgements… but keep in mind that every one of our 641,000 veterans in this country is trained to kill, their rage is rapidly building, and like any volcano – it will eventually erupt unless an urgent, national refocus of compassion is directed at the problem.
Ben Roberta- Smith VC MG was awarded those post-nominals for killing the enemy with a heroic degree of bravery … the only thing that has changed since he was awarded those post-nominals is the increased magnitude of toxic envy of everyone around him.
Dr Dan Mealey
Former Army doctor Afghanistan